‘Your people were already at the house. I saw the police car as I drove in. Eve was at the door. I can see them now. They were very good. Their kindness … I know they had to ask me those questions … where I had been, what time …’
They were both silent.
Simon did not return to the station after leaving the Old Mill but drove a couple of miles on, to a pub he sometimes visited when he didn’t want to meet anyone he knew. The place was quiet – it was still short of twelve thirty – and he ordered a home-cooked-ham sandwich and a half-pint of the locally brewed ale called, for some reason, the Snoddy.
When the thick slabs of fresh bread and ham with mustard arrived, he sat quietly for several minutes, clearing his mind of the morning’s interview with Lowther. He had come here in order to think about something else.
He drank, then took out his phone.
He had chosen a corner seat. To his right were two empty tables. The bar was at the far end, so the sound of voices was not going to disturb him.
There was nothing to disturb him.
He took another couple of draughts but did not eat. He would ring first. Eat afterwards. Once he knew.
It had been easy to find the phone number of course. He had the card on which he had scribbled it down in his wallet. He took it out. He finished his beer and picked up his phone.
For a few seconds there was no connection. A bad line, a wrong number? Why was he doing this?
Because he had sat next to a woman at a dinner and …
And what? For Christ’s sake. And nothing. An attraction? A fleeting connection but nothing else because there had not been time, it had not been the occasion, and besides … He heard the dialling tone.
She came into his mind. Her face, her hands, the curve of her arm, the line of her mouth, clear and distinct, along with the glittering lights and the gleaming silver and the sound of a room of people talking, the smell of candle smoke.
How long had it been since he had experienced anything like this? Freya. He remembered Freya and with a sense of great sadness. But he could not bring her face to mind, could not remember her voice. Freya had gone.
‘Hello. This is the answerphone for Kenneth and Rachel Wyatt. We aren’t able to take your call. Please would you leave a message? Thank you.’
Her voice was utterly familiar, as though he had been hearing it all his life, and listening to the message unnerved him, so he disconnected quickly, leaving no message.
He left the pub and strolled up the lane in the cool, bright afternoon. A donkey stood by a field gate and he stopped to scratch its ears, thinking he might come back to draw it.
His phone beeped a text.
Come 2 supper? Steak pie. Not seen u 4 ages. X
He was answering Cat when the phone rang, but in the confusion of ceasing to text and then replying, he pressed the key but did not give his name.
‘Hello? I think someone rang? This is Rachel Wyatt.’
‘Yes. I rang.’
She hesitated a long moment then said, ‘Simon?’
‘How did you – Ah. Yes. But you didn’t leave a message.’
‘Are you at the station?’
‘No. I’m in a lane near a pub. I just had lunch. Can I see you?’
‘Now? No, it’s –’
‘Not now. I have to get back. This evening? Could we meet this evening?’
‘I’m not sure …’
‘I’m not sure. I would have to …’ She stopped.
‘If you’d rather not, it’s fine, of course.’ Though it wasn’t.
‘No. No, I want to. Can I let you know a bit later? Or should I not ring you?’
‘It’s fine. I have to go and interview someone but you can leave me a message. Or send a text. Will you?’
‘I’ll be back at the station around four. When can you ring?’
‘Simon, I don’t know. Just … I will if I can.’
‘But … it’s nice to hear from you. What a non-word that is – “nice”.’
He laughed. ‘I’m happy with nice.’
‘And meet me. Try and meet me.’
HE WOULD HAVE recognised Katie Cadsden – now Katie Morris – from the photographs of her in the files, though she had been fifteen then, was thirty-one now. She had small sharp features but a wide mouth.
The house was on one of the new estates that had sprung up in the past decade between Bevham and Lafferton. It was neat, clean, detached, pleasant, but with all the character of a show home. Perhaps it had been a show home, Serrailler thought, as she led him into the sitting room. It overlooked a small garden. Grass. No borders. An octagonal cedar summerhouse at the end. A fence.
‘Please sit down. I was making some tea. I try to keep the day to its normal pattern even when I’m on night shift, otherwise there’s no logic to your life. I don’t suppose you do night shifts, do you?’
‘Not officially but I still get called out.’
‘How do you like your tea, Superintendent?’
He waited on the camel-coloured sofa, his feet on a cream rug. The walls were off-white with a couple of bland landscape pictures and a pale-framed mirror. Blonde-wood sideboard. Television tucked into one corner. A glass-topped table with a few magazines, splayed out in a fan. The sofa had coffee-coloured velour cushions. There was a tall plant in a china container beside the door. Show home. It was also very markedly a home without children or animals. It smelled faintly of vanilla.
He thought of his sister’s farmhouse, tumbled with children, cat and dog, books and papers, folders and files, games and rugs and coffee mugs, always clean, never tidy.
Katie Morris came in with a handled tray of pale wood. China teapot, small china mugs, a plate of iced biscuits, arranged in a circle.
‘How long have you been at Bevham General?’
She set the tray down. ‘I trained there, did general nursing, then I went to the National Heart Hospital for two years and that was it. I became a scrub nurse, theatre sister. Then back home. I can’t see me moving again. And of course I met Dave.’
She poured tea and handed it to Simon, then sat in the blonde-covered chair opposite to him.
‘But you came to talk about Harriet, didn’t you? This will sound awful but I’m just so glad you’ve found her – never mind the rest, I’m just glad. Not knowing, always at the back of my mind … Where is she? Is she OK? Can she be alive? If she’s dead, where have they put her? All that. This is something else to get my head round but still …’
‘I think her father feels the same way.’
‘So would her mother. It killed her, you know. Indirectly, directly, whatever. Harriet disappearing like that killed her. I wish she could know. At least puts something to rest, doesn’t it?’
‘Would you mind telling me something about Harriet? What sort of girl she was?’
‘I said all that – you can find it in the files, surely?’
‘I can. But I’d like you to tell me about her now. Time can lend a different perspective and you gave that interview when you were shocked and upset.’
She set down her mug and leaned back. This was always the moment when Simon knew he must not prompt – must not say anything at all. He watched her. Her face took on a slightly distant expression as she brought Harriet Lowther to mind again and tried to organise her thoughts. He looked out of the window. A few plants in pots or even a climber up the fence would have made it look less raw. Perhaps they had not lived here for long and this time next year it would be rich with colour and foliage – but he somehow doubted it.
‘Self-contained,’ she said now. ‘Everyone thought of Harriet as self-contained and maybe she was. In school, if she came to tea with us … she was quiet. She worked hard. She wasn’t the cleverest by a long chalk but she was good at maths, though she couldn’t get her head round languages at all, so she got tapes out of the library and listened to them till she got better. That’s how she was. She loved music. And tennis. Most games actually but tennis was her real thing. Tennis. Music. Maths.’
She stopped and leaned forward to pour more tea, offering the pot to Simon but he shook his head. She was still with Harriet. He didn’t want her to come back yet.
‘She was pretty self-sufficient. I mean, I was her friend, probably her best friend, and she got on fine with most people, but you always got the feeling she’d be just as happy by herself. Or with …’ She hesitated and looked at him.
‘It sounds funny but, well, with older people … she liked being with adults. She liked my mum and other people’s parents, she liked most of the teachers. I don’t mean she sucked up to them or anything … she just liked to talk to them.’
‘Anyone in particular?’
‘I’m not sure. You know, I haven’t said this before … it’s only looking back that I wonder. I just sensed there was someone, some particular friend.’
‘I don’t know. No. It wasn’t that she ever said anything … the opposite really. But she’d say she couldn’t come into town after school or on Saturday morning because she was “doing something”. But she never said what. I don’t think it was a family thing or she’d have just said, wouldn’t she? I mean, she did sometimes say “I’m going to London with Mum and Dad” – that sort of thing. But I just got the feeling this was different. I don’t know now. I could have imagined it. I probably did.’
‘Did she ever mention a boyfriend?’
‘Never. We all talked about boys – the ones at the Cathedral School, and at Burdon Hall – not at the Comp, we didn’t really know anyone there. A few people had boyfriends, but she didn’t. At least, if she did she kept it very dark.’
‘So what makes you think there was someone – some friend she often saw?’
Katie shook her head. ‘I don’t know. I did ask her once … she said she wasn’t going straight home, she was meeting someone in town, and I asked who but she just – I think she pretended not to hear. Maybe you’d better just forget it.’
He did not reply. But he would not forget it.
‘I know you said everything about the day she disappeared and we’ve got your original statement, but I’d like you to go over it again, if you would. Think yourself back – and try to remember it as if this were the first time you’d had to tell anyone. I know it’s difficult but –’
‘No. I owe it to Harriet. Everybody does.’
She sat forward and stared out of the window, not seeing what was there, seeing a different day.
He listened, waiting, waiting for something else, something new, something previously forgotten, trivial, mentioned in passing, vital, but there was nothing and he knew it had been too much to expect otherwise.
Then she said, ‘I did wonder for a minute though – she said she was meeting her mother at the hairdresser’s in the square and they said it on the television, on the news. Her mother was saying it. “We’d arranged to meet up at my hairdresser’s but Harriet never arrived.” So it must have been true. But … no, nothing.’
He waited, knowing that she was going to venture it, even so.
‘I just wondered if she was going somewhere else – meeting someone else. There was just something in the way she said it. Only – well, I was wrong, wasn’t I?’
‘Had she ever done that, to your knowledge? Told you where she was going but actually planning to be somewhere different?’
‘If she had I didn’t find out. I said she was quiet and that’s true. But sometimes it wasn’t just quiet – it was closed up. Oyster-like. You always wondered what was going on inside her head. She made you feel like there was something. I’ve met people like that since – you get a feeling they’re carrying these huge secrets or have a fascinating other life. Well, they’re not. They’re just not. What you see is what you get.’
‘But in Harriet’s case, perhaps not entirely?’
He always knew the precise moment. Something went click, as if they had come out of a trance, and that was it, back in the present, and you’d got everything you were going to get.
At the door, she said, ‘I’ve thought about her, you know, probably every day … it’s always been there. So now I don’t have to wonder any more. If she’s alive, where she’s alive, why she … all of that. It’s done. That’s something, isn’t it?’
‘Yes.’ Simon walked to his car, down the path beside the neat, hedgeless, fenceless, flowerless front garden.
And it was. But how much?
He glanced back as he reversed. Katie Morris had gone in and the tidy crescent of new dolls’ houses was empty again. No cats, no dogs, no kids. Nothing.
As he reached the turn his phone bleeped. He had switched it off while he was at Katie’s, knowing how a sudden ring could blow away something about to be remembered, or spoken, and then the whole interview was forfeited.
‘You have one message. Message received today at sixteen eleven.’
His hand tightened on the phone.
‘Sorry, you’re obviously busy. But … if you still want to … I could. Maybe you can ring back? I could meet somewhere at half six …’ She paused, then said again hurriedly, ‘If you still want to. Oh, and I’m on my mobile – if you call back would you use this number?’
He called back.
‘Hello. Rachel Wyatt. Please leave me a message. Thank you.’
He didn’t leave one. He needed to think where they could meet. Not anywhere in Lafferton. Not any of the country pubs he went to for the occasional lunch – there was always the chance of someone he knew being there.
Where? There had to be the right place. But he had still not thought of it when he turned into the station forecourt. Six thirty.
He checked his messages, looked in on the CID room, which was deserted, returned the files he had brought in and took out half a dozen more. Left again.
He was home just after five.
It came to him in the shower, a picture of the place clear in his mind. But not the name, not the damned name.
He took out a clean pale blue shirt, the dark blue needlecord jacket. No tie.